Tuesday, October 16, 2018

4th-Grade Music Education

Maybe once a week, a music teacher visited our 4th-grade class and taught us about, well, music, obviously. The music back then, by the way, was not much different from what my Granddaddy listened to!

Our music teacher's name was "Francis," but I can't remember if that was his first or last name, I just know it sounded like a girl's name to me.

Instead of describing him, I'll just show you how he looked: 
How Mr. Francis looked

Mr. Francis would talk to us about a trombone, for example, then put on a record, put the needle on the record, then make the time-honored "shush" index finger-to-the-lip sign, and out of the scratchy speaker came a trombone. 

And he would do that with other instruments. As the days went by, he started telling us about famous classical music pieces. He played Rossini's "William Tell Overture," and told us the story of Mr.Tell and the apple, and he told us Rossini was a very, very large man.

We were all entertained when he played Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and he asked us what it sounded like, and we all shouted out "Bumble bees, Mr. Frannncisss!"
How I looked in 4th grade

Of course, I already knew about it because my dad played it occasionally on our old record player. He had already asked me what I thought it sounded like and I had already answered "Bumble bees." 

And Mama Joyce had already asked him not to play it because it gave her a headache, unless she was eating, and then it made her eat too fast which gave her heartburn.

Then one day, Mr. Francis said to us, "Let's find a piece we can all play," and -- surprise! -- he opened up a big box of plastic flutophones (very similar to recorders in case you know what those are) and handed them out to us. 
A flutophone

I couldn't wait to play that thing. I already thought of myself as a young Louis Armstrong even though I had never even seen a brass instrument. "I bet I'm gonna be really good at this," I said to myself foolishly.

Once we had all drooled on our flutophones, Mr. Francis played Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe" on the record player, then played it on his flutophone, then started teaching us which holes to cover with our fingers to make the sound of "Old Black Joe" come out of our flutophones. 

A few days later, he said, "I have some big news, boys and girls! We are going to play 'Old Black Joe' at a Chamber of Commerce lunch! We're going to wear formal clothes just like at a concert! Boys will wear white shirts, girls white blouses and black skirts. So let's practice real hard so we can play it perfectly!"

On stage! In front of an audience! Nice clothes! Making beautiful music with our flutophones!

So day by day (looking back, it seems like weeks, but it was probably only three or four days) we played "Old Black Joe" over and over in class and at home where, after just an hour or so, it became my mom's least favorite song ever!

To help us understand the music better, Mr. Francis added the scale to our repertoire. We played the scale, then "Old Black Joe," again and again.

Then the big day came. Here was the plan: Right after lunch we would all pile into a school bus and it would take us across town to the Chamber of Commerce and we would practice once more behind the stage curtains, then Mr. Francis would introduce us, and then we would take our first step toward musical fame.

At lunch on the big day, we had spaghetti. Do I need to even say more? You're probably thinking everyone got drippy spaghetti sauce all over their white shirts or blouses.


Only Papa (not called that back then) got drippy spaghetti sauce on his white shirt. Trying to wipe it off with a napkin didn't help. Ol' Lady Tottingham* couldn't help. My classmates' blend of sympathy and ridicule didn't help.

When I got on the bus, Mr. Francis told me, "Try to hold your instrument over your spaghetti sauce as much as possible." I could tell he was disappointed.

Not long afterwards, we filed out onto the Chamber of Commerce stage, my flutophone doing all that it could to hide a healthy smear of red sauce.

Mr. Francis assumes the conductor's pose. He lifts his wand -- and the show begins.

Surprisingly, we did a pretty good job with "Old Black Joe," so good, in fact, that the Chamber of Commerce applauded, hooted, whistled and demanded an encore, which Mr. Francis was not expecting.

What else could we play? We only knew "Old Black Joe" and the scale! I swear I could see sweat popping out on his handsome brow. I also swear that I could not hear what he told us to play. Also neither could most of us.

We could hear our fellow maestros playing their flutophones but it sounded like a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments just seconds after they rolled out of bed. 

So some of us played "Old Black Joe," some played the scale, some just blew randomly into their flutophones, and some stood still and stared blankly at a hee-hawing Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Francis wasn't laughing. 

On the way back to school, all of us kids argued about what Mr. Francis told us to play for an encore, and we stayed busy talking over each other and blaming each other for the disaster.

Mr. Francis sat in the front of the bus, silently fuming, his back to us.

I think we turned in our flutophones the next day. And this is where my highly anticipated musical career ended.

*What my classmate Ed Smith called Miss Cottingham because he had a major speech defect.

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